Responding to the Religiously Obnoxious

Responding to the Religiously Obnoxious April 14, 2015

full moon 07.12.14 02It seems like at least once a week I see a post in one of my social media groups saying “people keep attacking me because I’m Pagan – what can I do about it?”  Many of them are young, stuck in schools and even families that are unsupportive, with few outside resources available to them.  The usual clichés of “just ignore them” and “don’t let it bother you” aren’t helpful.

If you’re experiencing bullying, file a complaint.  If you’re facing discrimination, get legal help.  The ACLU doesn’t have a battery of lawyers waiting to take on religious discrimination cases pro bono, but there are resources available.  This post isn’t about discrimination that rises to that level.  This is about garden variety religious obnoxiousness and what you can do about it.

There is no spell to make people nice.  There is no debate tactic that will change the minds of those who refuse to see facts and reason.  I work and pray for the day when no one will be harassed because of their religion, but that day isn’t here yet.  Some people genuinely believe their way is the only way – getting everyone to affirm the value and worth of your religion isn’t a feasible goal.

If you don’t have to engage, don’t.  I get door-knockers on a regular basis:  Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baptists are most frequent.  If I have time I like talking to them, challenging their unstated assumptions and letting them know that yes, some people really do worship many Gods.  But if I don’t have time, or if they seem particularly aggressive, I’ll just say “thank you, but I’m not interested.”

That’s easy when it’s my door and I can close it whenever I like.  It’s harder when I’m in a public place, but I can still say “my religion is a private matter and I don’t want to discuss it.”  Large corporations usually have policies against religious harassment.  Small businesses are another matter – some owners see their business as an extension of themselves and don’t want to separate work and religion, regardless of the law.  Still, most people will respect “I don’t want to talk about religion.”

Don’t be that guy.  You know the one.  Quotes the Bible constantly, no matter the context.  Makes sure everyone knows he’s at church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night.  And he keeps inviting you to go with him.  He’s not a bad guy, but he goes on and on and on.

It’s good to be an out and proud Pagan.  It’s good to wear your Pagan jewelry and clothes – I’m particularly fond of my lime green Awen t-shirt.  It’s a very different thing to push your Paganism on people who aren’t interested.  Don’t be that guy.

Avoid “it’s all the same” arguments.  A battle avoided is a battle won, particularly if you’re just trying to get through the week at school.  But sometimes you can’t avoid a difficult or even hostile conversation.  Or maybe you don’t want to avoid it.

If you do engage the religiously obnoxious, don’t dismiss your differences.  Deep down, all religions aren’t the same.  They make fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of the Universe, the central problems of the human condition, and how best to address them.  Spells aren’t the same as prayers, the Wiccan Goddess isn’t the same as the Christian God, and my recognition of Jesus as a God isn’t the same as those who think He’s the only God.

The worst part of “it’s all the same” is that if you say it enough you’ll start to believe it.  You’re a Pagan because something – or Someone – different called to you.  Embrace your differences.

Talk about what you do.  If someone is criticizing your religion, odds are good they have a misunderstanding of what the various Pagan traditions are all about.  Explaining it to them isn’t likely to be effective, particularly if they aren’t interested in facts that disturb their prejudices.

Instead, talk about what you do.  Talk about sitting in meditation.  Talk about honoring your ancestors and the spirits of the place where you live.  Talk about your reverence for Nature.  You don’t have to tell them everything – I’m not going to try to explain ecstatic possession to a fundamentalist Christian or an aggressive atheist.

Don’t waste time denying what you don’t do.  Spend your time talking about what you actually do.

photo by Cyn Qoaad
photo by Cyn Qoaad

Know your stuff.  If you’re going to debate, get your facts straight.  This is the age of Google and bullshit is easy to track down.  I hope no one still thinks nine million witches were killed during the Burning Times, but I see that claim from time to time.  Show you know what you’re talking about and people are more likely to take you seriously.  Insisting that the Druids built Stonehenge and you’re their direct descendant makes you easy to ridicule.

Do not argue from the Bible!  Yes, it can be fun to point out the inconsistencies in fundamentalist thinking.  Yes, it’s amazing how many Christians haven’t bothered to actually read the Bible.  But if you quote a verse that supports your opinion, you open yourself to attack with other verses against it.  More importantly, when you argue from the Bible you reinforce the idea that the Bible is a legitimate source of authority.  It is not.

When someone argues from the Bible, simply say “the Bible is a collection of stories written by and for a particular group of people living in a particular place and time.”  I’m not going to accept “the Bible says…” as a legitimate argument, so I can’t use “the Bible says…” to support my position.

Keep doing what you do.  At its core, bigotry is about one group affirming itself by knocking down others – the pressure to conform can be immense.  The best way to resist that pressure is to maintain a daily spiritual practice.  Meditate and pray.  Read historical and devotional books.  Honor your Gods, ancestors, and spirits of place.  Honor Nature and work to live in harmony with her.  Work protective magic.

Don’t try to do this alone.  Find the support of like-minded folks – in person if you can, on-line if you can’t.

Should you work baneful magic?  I’m not a believer in the Rule of Threes and I don’t see karma as some kind of supernatural moral accounting system.  Threaten me and mine and I’ll respond with all the tools at my disposal.  At the same time, keep things in perspective.  Does this really rise to the level of bindings and curses?  Think hard before you act.

Do your job.  If you’re at work, work.  If you’re at school, study.  Show up on time and work hard.  If you have time for religious discussions and you find them a positive experience (and if you aren’t “that guy”), fine, but don’t let talking about Paganism keep you from being a good Pagan and living virtuously.  Focus on getting your job done.

Keep your commitments – do what you say you’ll do.  Study Pagan virtues and learn to embody them.  Live so honorably that if someone attacks you, everyone else will think they’ve lost their mind.

That’s easier to do in some settings than in others.  Schools can be places where the only recognized virtue is whatever the cool kids say it is.  Again, if you experience bullying, file a complaint and stay with it.  Following a different religion is no excuse for abuse and even the most honorable non-conformists are often targets.

Silbury Hill 2007Be who you are.  I’m a big proponent of doing what it takes to get along.  But at some point, “getting along” becomes “pretending to be someone you aren’t.”  I’ve crossed that line before, sometimes knowingly and sometimes mindlessly.  It never ended well.  It was never worth it to try to be someone I wasn’t.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I support the right of every person of every age in every setting to choose their own free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  As a Pagan, I realize that building a better world means upsetting a lot of apple carts.  Paganism will never be widely accepted by the mainstream – not if we do what needs to be done to challenge a harmful and destructive culture.

But sovereignty calls us to rule our own lives.  May we rule them well, even when we have to deal with the religiously obnoxious.

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